Are Alternative Delivery Methods Right for Your Project?

Throughout the country and around the world, because of funding issues and schedule constraints, we have seen more and more projects turn to alternative delivery methods, or public-private partnerships (P3). These methods, such as design-build (DB), design-build-operate (DBO), and design-build-finance-operate (DBFO), are called “alternative” because their approach is different from the traditional design-bid-build (DBB) delivery method.

Under a traditional DBB model, an architect/engineer designs the project, then a contractor is hired through a bid process to build the project. However, depending on a project’s complexity, scheduling constraints, and budget, an alternative delivery method might be a more efficient and cost-effective way to meet an organization’s needs.

I have had the privilege of playing lead roles on several notable alternative delivery projects in Maryland, including the Purple Line Light Rail, Inter-County Connector (ICC)/MD 200, and Hampstead Bypass (MD 30 Relocated), and I have seen firsthand some of the benefits of using alternative delivery methods.

The ICC/MD 200 is one of Maryland’s largest design-build projects to date. Maryland’s first all-electronic toll road, the ICC/MD 200 is a $2.5 billion, 18.8-mile-long, six-lane tolled freeway that connects Gaithersburg in Montgomery County and Laurel in Prince George’s County.

The project was both high-profile and strongly debated in the community, meaning the pressure was high for the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) to deliver a successful project. The Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA) has praised the project for leveraging DB best practices to ensure that success.

“MSHA’s close attention to best practices in design-build procurement, from early development through contract award and completion, resulted not only in on-time, on-budget delivery of what has been called the ‘most sustainable highway in America,’ it also prevented the ICC’s actual delivery from becoming an additional source of controversy,” writes DBIA. The benefits of using DB delivery methods on this project included constructing the project faster, more cost-effectively, and with fewer complaints.

Hampstead Bypass (MD 30 Relocated) was another DB project developed by the Maryland Department of Transportation and managed by SHA. Since this was perhaps the very first DB project for Maryland, the team members undertaking design and construction of this 4.5-mile, two-lane roadway were truly pioneers.

Like the ICC/MD 200 project, everyone was under enormous pressure to get things right and complete a successful project. The project’s execution, process, and application of advanced design concepts and techniques helped accumulate valuable experience and ideas for the agencies and consultants involved.  The Hampstead Bypass helped set standards and expectations for future DB projects.

What engineers can expect on alternative delivery projects

Perhaps you have wondered what special requirements alternative delivery projects have for engineers. Does alternative delivery also mean alternative roles for engineers, including structural engineers like us?

I would offer an easy answer: alternative delivery methods require engineers to be simple and be practical. Fundamentally, alternative delivery requires engineers to have a different mindset than when following the traditional DBB process. There is a need for engineers who can think on their feet, so to speak.

For example, instead of following a set and slow-paced schedule with the opportunity to mull over ideas, engineers are faced with a shortened and, often, hectic timeframe. This means that engineers must be able to offer solutions on-the-go.

Under a DB approach, designers and contractors work together from the project start under a single contract. As a result, project teams tend to work more collaboratively on DB projects, which can lead to camaraderie and a rewarding working environment. Be prepared to keep an open mind, be educated by the contractor’s engineers and field staff, and really explore simple and practical solutions.

On the ICC/MD 200 project, for instance, the design-builders co-located consultant and owner staff together so that the project’s design could be discussed openly and honestly. Our collaboration included the frequent exchange of ideas and conducting over-the-shoulder reviews daily on all phases of the design together with the designer, constructor, owner, and outside stakeholders.

As some would say, “In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” I have been told that this has actually been confirmed by scientists; it turns out that “Aha!” moments favor a prepared mind!

So, keep an open mind, welcome the opportunities, and be prepared to be challenged. I have completed several “tours of duty” in the world of alternative delivery, and I am looking forward to the next opportunity.

Spencer Lee, PE, is the structural and transportation engineering department manager for EBA Engineering, Inc. He can be reached at 240.547.1136,, or on LinkedIn.


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Alireza Tashakori